For at least 12 of our past 20 years in business, one of our mainstays at South East Site Engineers has been the topographical land surveys, GPR underground utility surveys and construction setting out of UK solar farms. During the first half of this 12-year period the solar renewable energy industry sector was booming, with year-on-year growth exceeding 80% right up to 2015 due largely to the incentives that the government at the time had put in place on the 1 st April 2010. The latter half of this 12-year period has been quite a different story, with what I would describe as the decimation of the solar farming industry by those desperate to keep hold of power, both in its literal and metaphoric form.
Ever since the UK government switched hands on the 11 th of May 2010, I’ve been amongst those perplexed by the resistance, to what clearly feels like an environmentally sensible road to take. Yes, I am biased, as well as it being one of the big six clean energy sources the UK has at its disposal; solar farms in particular offer opportunities for both our topographic site engineering services and below ground survey services. The reasons behind such a swift and brutal policy turnaround by the new government in 2010 on what is the world’s cheapest and most popular renewable energy source may not be clear in the big bad world of politics; however, for any 70’s movie fanatics out there, I need only say “Follow the money” and we start to get an idea of what is really afoot.
The solar industry’s first political strike was on the 1 st of August 2011 when feed-in tariffs got cut from 30.7p to 8.5p per Kwh for field installations over 250Kw. This would have essentially hit any development larger than an acre and affected any project capable of powering the boiler heating systems of more than 10 typical 3-bed homes at once with no reliance on fossil fuels whatsoever.
Four years later, once the inevitable slowdown started to wain from the 2011 cut in feed-in tariffs, the few clean energy developers that survived this first strike had their heads above water once again. However, the government soon struck once more by completely removing all pre-accreditation Feed-in Tariffs (FITs) as led by then Environment Secretary Liz Truss. The fact that any minister for the environment would have previously worked for four years as an industrial economist at one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies, quite rightly, shouldn’t be enough to ring alarm bells; however, this is about following the money, so more on that in a moment.
I’m not saying that the 30.7p per Kwh wasn’t an extremely generous reward for developers of renewable energy, as I witnessed first-hand, some landowners become millionaires overnight as their fields were turned from generating wheat to generating thousands of pounds worth of electricity per day at a guaranteed price for the next 25 years. What I am saying, however, is that such a deep and drastic cut was counterproductive to our environmental ambitions of the time.
The strike on FITs in October 2015 was swiftly followed by the scrapping of all subsidy support through the Renewables Obligation (RO) agreement for solar farms in April 2016 and lends itself further to a counterproductive political agenda and why we need to follow the money, very closely. One of the problems with this policy switch, and a political opposition too weak to do anything about it was that, as developers no longer had a guaranteed price for their electricity, they started to lose confidence; so, was this the plan? The short answer is that we simply don’t know; however, what I can say is that these cuts resulted in the near disappearance of all new solar farm development projects in England in less than six years. Turning an 80% year-on-year solar power generation growth industry right up to 2015, into a real-time drop in solar power generation between 2019 and 2020. The Hill Equation curve couldn’t have been starker, as the industry was given no choice but to react to the governments disinvestment.
Given the multitude of problems we have had to face over the past six years, not least Brexit, Covid-19, and the Ukraine War; today most of us are reeling at the latest fossil fuel energy price rises, double-digit food inflation, the tripling of mortgage rates, and what is officially the first non-Covid related UK recession since 2009; to the point where we would only go as far as thinking “if only…”. However, for those that dare to think a little deeper, or choose to follow the money a little further, with what are effectively all manmade problems; the question becomes, how in the midst of all of this bad stuff, do both BP and Shell split over £15Billion in profits between themselves alone?
One of many places that following this money leads us to are the recent prime ministerial elections. For example, beyond working for Shell in a former life, Liz Truss’s biggest individual prime ministerial campaign doner was the wife of former BP executive James Hay. With other campaign donors including Lord Vinson, a peer who contributes to climate science-denying thinktank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Lance Forman, a former Brexit Party politician who has also dismissed the science on climate change, Andrew Law, a trustee at the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange who have pretty clear opinions on how to handle the Just Stop Oil protestors; as well as Jon Moynihan and Barbara Yerolemou, who both sit on the advisory council of the Free Market Forum, an initiative of the BP-funded Institute of Economic Affairs think tank. Between these six individuals alone, Liz managed to raise over half of her £300,000 prime ministerial campaign spending limit.
Liz’s successful bid to become prime minister and her “not filling fields with paraphernalia like solar farms.” Spoke directly to her plan to ban solar farms on agricultural land; something that struggling farmers themselves are strongly opposed to. Our newest prime minister Rishi Sunak promising to do the same by preventing agricultural land from being covered by “swathes of solar panels” feeds the same narrative, particularly as Rishi too accepted donations from supporters with links to oil and gas for his Ready4Rishi leadership campaign, while at one point being “too busy” to attend the COP27 climate summit in Egypt.
Although it will take time for our UK solar farm clean energy industry to get back on track, it is not all doom and gloom, as last year the government did decide to include solar back into its low carbon funding programmes for the first time since 2015. And while we all hope for the effects of this new
clean energy incentive to filter through, we can at least celebrate the likes of Greece, who last month managed to supply their entire country’s electricity demand using renewable energy only for over 5-hours; with a quarter of this clean energy coming from solar. A Eurozone country that in 2015, the same year as our government started the strategic decimation of our solar farm industry, had to default on its IMF debt due to its inability to be productive (amongst other things of course).
We have known for years that both wind and solar farms (which in themselves are comparable in production costs) are by far the cheapest forms of UK energy production. Solar energy, which is what this piece is on, now costs about 10% of what it did when we started in this field 12 years ago; however, more importantly, in normal times when there was no Ukraine War, it cost a fraction of what it costs to produce oil and gas, both in its financial and planetary form. Hence, we can choose to keep blindly following the money and have most people suffer in silence; or we can choose to put the political allegiances and golden handshakes to one side and follow the maths. That way, we can give the solar PV farming industry the attention it deserved once more.